Humor in War and Horror in Humor



USMC Mark 2 Combat Fighting Knife

Funny things happen in war. Not necessarily ha-ha funny, but funny nonetheless. We take our chuckles where we find them. Some call this kind of humor gallows-humor and it can be found amongst any group of first-responders. Constant high-stress necessitates a relief valve, and gallows-humour can be that valve.

Snakes. Vietnam had (and still does have) snakes. Big ones, little ones, dangerous ones and scary ones. Herbie was a big and scary one, but he was not a dangerous one. Herbie lived under our hooch and oftentimes “in” our hooch. Herbie was a python. You know, those big suckers you see in the zoo, about as big around as your thigh. Herbie ate rats (also big, scary and dangerous).

The new guy didn’t know about Herbie. When he’d arrived earlier in the morning we were all out of the hooch. We probably wouldn’t have told him anyway. That’s how it works in the Marines. The new guy thought he would lay down on his cot and catch forty-winks. Herbie thought different. Herbie was a substantial snake, maybe fifteen feet in length.

Herbie lost his mind. That’s what happens when somebody puts a .45 ACP slug into your head. Yeah, the new guy shot Herbie. We almost shot the new guy. We liked Herbie, but more importantly he protected us from the rats and their plague-ridden fleas and nasty bites. When the sun went down the rats came out. We’re not talking little white rats, we’re talking big black rats about the size of a large cat.

We didn’t kill the new guy, but we should have. I used to have an old black & white photo of us holding Herbie minus his head. I don’t have it anymore. My ex-wife threw it away while she was tossing out my junk, my memories were junk, her memories were priceless. If I had been smart she would have suffered the same fate as Herbie.


Marines with a Python in Vietnam

Showers were infrequent in Vietnam. Soap was scarce and cold water was abundant. Officers felt the need to bathe more frequently because they were gentlemen, most of us enlisted types were just slobs. Showering at night was dangerous. Night was critter-time. Officers lived separately from us enlisted pukes, in what was known as “Officer’s Country.”

The Captain had his flashlight, his towel and his scarce soap. He also had the shower to himself (or so he thought) and all the darkness that went with it. He didn’t see the ten foot Cobra, not at first anyway. His screams let everyone know when he finally did see it. I wasn’t there to see the look on his face, but I was close enough to hear the screams. I know what you’re thinking. How did the Cobra get in the shower, and what was I doing there.

This next story was recently related to me by a former Marine and blog follower. They had set up a night ambush, and he and his buddy were laying silently in the bush on their bellies. You don’t know the terror of this situation unless you’ve experienced it. In the darkest hours of the night a large snake slithered over the back of his legs. He whispered this event to his buddy, who without skipping a beat asked: which way was he going?

Beetles. Beetles in Vietnam are like prehistoric Pterodactyls. They’re huge, they’re black and they fly. Rhinoceros beetles can be over six inches in length, that’s about the size of an adult human hand. We were lounging in our hooch one hot afternoon when one of these enormous creatures flew in at top speed. We all exited post-haste. I hate bugs—snakes I like, bugs I hate. Most of us bailed out without our weapons.

1911 .45

USMC M1911A1 Automatic Pistol

P.K. Redd had been cleaning his .45 ACP pistol, and God only knew where all his pistol parts were now. Scattered all over the hooch would be the educated guess. Monk had his bayonet with him, because he’d been digging the goop out from under his toenails, the rest of us were weaponless. We were discussing which one of us lucky SOBs was going to usher our visitor out, when he suddenly zoomed back out on his own accord (and we zoomed back in).

Finally a knife story. Being a Marine in a combat zone can be boring as hell when you’re not being scared shitless. To relieve the boredom (and the tension) a good game of Mumblety-peg is just the thing. Any guy worth his salt knows about this game. Two men stand facing one another, legs spread shoulder width apart, and proceed to throw their knives at each others feet, getting as close as possible.

It’s typically played with pocketknives, but Marine Corps KA-BARs give the game a whole new dimension. A KA-BAR is a combat fighting knife, it’s used to kill people. It’s just shy of 12-inches long and 7-inches of that length is a “razor-sharp” blade. It doesn’t do any good if it’s not razor-sharp. Jugulars and carotids are tougher than they look. The game is usually played sober, but again a fifth of whiskey gives the game a whole new dimension.

The game went well for about five seconds. Roundtree was a cracker from the south and Smokey was a surfer from California. With Roundtree’s first throw he got really close to Smokey’s foot. In fact he got so close that the 7-inch blade went through the top of Smokey’s boot, then through his sock, then through his foot, then through the bottom of his sock, then through the sole of his boot before finally planting itself about two inches into the wooden floor.


USMC Jungle Boots with Socks

Smokey’s eyes got really big and his mouth looked like a huge, oversized Cheerio. You know, that cereal that looks like a big “O.” Roundtree saw Smokey’s face and started laughing, because he thought it was just about the funniest thing he had ever seen. Then he looked down at Smokey’s foot, stuck fast to the floor, and got confused. A fifth of whiskey will do that to you (it can confuse a person).

We all looked on in amazement. No blood—so it was all good. Until Smokey tried to walk and fell over, because his foot was still stuck to the floor. We pulled the knife from the floor, from the sole of his boot, from the bottom of his sock, from his foot, from the top of his sock and finally from the top of his boot. Removing his boot and sock we could now see a big hole in the top of his foot, but no blood.

Then there was blood. Lots of blood. We crammed antibiotic cream into the hole. Then we crammed his sock into the hole. Then we crammed whatever else we could find into the hole. Then Smokey started screaming. Pussy. I guess the whiskey was wearing off. We all staggered around (yep, we’d been drinking too) for awhile until someone had the bright idea of getting Smokey to the aid station.

Cutting to the chase—Smokey finally got to the aid station, but almost bled to death before getting there (literally). He spent a week in the hospital, never felt much sensation in his foot again (nerve damage) and barely remembered the incident. The officers initiated an investigation, but of course none of us saw anything, well except for all the blood in the hooch. The case was finally dropped due to lack of evidence, and no charges were ever filed (no Purple Heart awarded either).

See, there can be humor in war and maybe a little horror in humor.

Sgt Stephen F. Dennstedt USMC

Sgt Stephen F. Dennstedt USMC

Awards & Decorations

Awards & Decorations

El Mochito Steve2 WEB

Stephen F. Dennstedt

Photographer, Writer and World Traveller

Lima, Peru


6 responses to “Humor in War and Horror in Humor

  1. I know about the rats in Vietnam. I had only been in country for less than a week when we had a small rat, about the size of what people here would call huge, got into our hooch. After drinking much beer everybody tried to see who could hit it with a bayonet. Beer will make who think you can do anything, but in reality you can’t. The rat left, or hid don’t know which, everybody when to bed. Just as I was about to drop off to sleep I felt some thing crawl into my cot an started up my leg. The last thing I remember was me runnin out or through the hooch and out the back door with the insect netting around my neck. Neless to said that I have never licked rat since that night in 1967. “Welcome Home brother” from a former member of the US Army.

  2. I was there when the division was form. I got in country in July 67 and left the end June 68. You must have left after Tet, hoped you in Hue.

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